Campaign Description

Here's what this campaign is about:

Ensuring equal opportunities in curriculum and programming for all students

Providing our students and faculty with safe, healthy, technology-driven learning environments

Committing to our neighborhood schools

Guaranteeing responsible stewardship of public funds

Celebrating the diversity within our district

Engaging parents to become active participants in the schools

Making data-driven decisions with measurable results

Email us at or call 331-6746

Friday, July 26, 2013

Why on Earth am I Running for School Board?

When I launched this campaign for school board back in May, I knew that I would be asked many, many questions throughout the course of the summer.  Many of those questions I was prepared for.  Others forced me to reexamine my own beliefs.  The question, though, that I most often receive is “Why on Earth are you doing this?”  Hopefully, I can try to answer that here. 

A little background first….
My wife and I are both products of the Iowa City Community School District.  She attended Lucas Elementary. I attended Lemme. We both went to South East and City High.  After receiving my degree in Biology from the University of Iowa, I moved away to the south side of Chicago to attend optometry school.  We then moved to Cleveland OH to complete residency training at the VA Hospital. 

Needless to say, Chicago and Cleveland were eye-opening experiences.   My first patients were from the projects, community clinics, and union health centers.  I had never really seen, let alone been immersed in, that type of poverty.  I had never experienced a community where the public schools are failing.  I had never been exposed to so many different cultures and just assumed that everyone viewed the world through the Iowa City prism (bad vision reference, I know).  

Most importantly I had never really, truly appreciated the community we live in and the strong commitment we have to our schools. After finishing my training, it was an easy decision for my wife and I when we decided to return to Iowa City to start our family.  The weather might be crazy, but hey, at least we knew the schools were good. Right?

When we returned to Iowa City in 2000, we bought our first house on Irving Ave based on proximity to my employment, neighborhood vibe and price.  We knew that there was a relatively new school (Weber) close by, but didn’t really pay any attention to things like test scores or FRL percentages because we just knew that when we had children, the district would ensure that every child, regardless of address would have a shot.

When we did finally start our family, we moved to the NE side of Iowa City to live in a neighborhood that had developed on the exact location where we had camped in the early 90’s. We were pleased to find that the school closest to us (Shimek) was only 1.3 miles away. We were busy raising our son and daughter and dealing with daycare, bills and jobs at UIHC. All was good, even the Hawkeyes were doing well.

Then, around that time, I began to worry about the growing perception that something was wrong in our district, especially at our older schools. I became involved with the City High Alumni Association in an effort to work hard to contribute to my alma mater. After all, my children were going to be students there some day.  That involvement has led to multiple opportunities to be active in bigger district discussions.  I very much enjoyed my time there and am happy that City High remains a vibrant, diverse community.

So why am I running? 
Isn’t it enough to do nearly a decade serving my alma mater?  Aren’t I busy enough seeing patients at the VA Hospital and in Riverside? Am I not busy raising two kids and all the extracurricular activities that go along with that?  You bet I am…..

However, as Iowa City natives, my wife and I remember the time when our district was forward thinking.  When we were once proactive about building schools with an eye toward the future and where growth could and would be.  Most of our elementary schools and especially City and West were once upon a time “out in the middle of a cornfield.”  Iowa schools were consistently ranked among the top 2-3 nationally and our district was tops in the state.   We used to be forward thinking in our educational strategies and Iowa-centric in our philosophies about what type of graduates we wanted to produce.

We’ve had explosive growth (20% in enrollment since 2003) in our district over the past two decades and have, in many ways, become reactive, rather than proactive, about building our schools.   For years there has been a lack of a clear long-term plan for our district and the growth isn’t slowing.

Meanwhile, an achievement gap has been growing between schools, especially at the elementary level.  Suddenly, test scores are the focus and there is the perception that some schools are better to attend than others.  When coupled with the achievement gap between Hispanic and African American students and their Caucasian or Asian classmates, we are failing a good portion of our students. We CAN do better and we OWE every student a fair shot at a great education.

There has also been a growing inequity between the facilities throughout the district.  Equity is not the same as equal, but it does achieve what in healthcare is referred to as the “standard of care.”  Air-conditioning, functioning technology and a safe, clean environment inside and outside of the school should be the standard of care.

As we move ahead with our strategic long-term facility planning, I am excited about the prospect of, once again, having a roadmap to the future for our district.  The RPS vote gives us the ability to start right away on building and renovating.  In short, we can become proactive once again.

The district faces many challenges and critical decisions over the next few years.  These decisions will have a lasting effect on our schools and our community.  I was raised here.  I’m raising my kids here.  I’m going to retire here.  I want to be a part of the critical decision making that is happening right at this moment in time when we try to seize the reigns and move forward. 

We need to build on the strong traditions of the past, but with and eye toward the future. We have to commit to healthy, high-performance, cost-effective 21st century classrooms that will prepare our graduates for any avenue.  We must also try, when possible, to preserve our traditions at our current facilities.

It is easy to get caught focusing on the minutiae of the moment or the hot-button topic of the week in our district.  However, we have to realize that year after year, we continue to produce high-caliber, tech-savvy, critical thinkers that are well prepared for whatever comes next.  THAT should be our focus.

I truly believe that we are judged by how we treat the least among us.  As a public school system we need to double-down on ensuring ALL of our students get an equal opportunity to succeed. We need to make our decisions focused on that goal while being fiscally responsible with the public funds entrusted to the district.

The Iowa City School District gave me all the tools to succeed and the most influential educators in my life were found here.  I very much want to be a part of our unwavering commitment to public education.  There are difficult, exciting decisions ahead that will affect our community for generations to come.  I feel I have the historical background and the clinical skills to fairly and objectively make those decisions in a collegial and civil manner with other members of the board.

If schools are a barometer for community health, then our community is at a crossroads.  Let’s get to work. I hope you’ll join me.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world"  -Mahatma Ghandi

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The BIG Question

Tonight the current Board members will be weighing in on which facilities plan they support.  A? B? Perhaps a combo of the two?  I recently received a question from a local parent and was asked to respond in a blogosphere forum where my answer would be compared to the other non-incumbent candidates. Hope I get points for honesty. Here is the question and my response.

If you were on the board right now, would you vote to close any schools as part of a long-term facilities plan?

The short, honest answer to this question is yes.  When school closure is considered in the context of strategic, long-term comprehensive facilities planning, all scenarios must be weighed and analyzed carefully. Looking ahead to the predicted future needs of the district, facility closures should be considered ONLY IF the following criteria are met:

·    They are considered as part of a broader redistricting plan that contributes to improved facility equity throughout the district.
·   New elementary school constructions and renovations must be completed before any closures occur.
·      There is a clear opportunity to reduce operational costs to the district, therefore ensuring long-term fiscal responsibility.
·      Plans for a school closure are communicated in a transparent fashion to the affected families and neighborhoods with a reasonable proposed time frame of no less than 3 years.
·      Affected families are included in determining a clear plan as to where students will be assigned to attend school at the end of that time period, therefore allowing families to acclimate or adjust their future planning.
·     Teachers at an affected school are included in the conversation and there is open communication regarding future facility teaching assignments.
·     The closure must align with “Child-Centered: Future-Focused” and affected families will have the opportunity to experience long-term benefits to their child’s education.

Usually discussions about closing schools are reserved for districts that are in decline.  Our district is thriving and growing.  With planned commitments to build more cost effective, environmentally friendly 21st century schools we have to try our best to predict demographics and enrollment patterns many decades into the future.

I believe that we should be committed to our existing neighborhood schools, but at this moment in time, we have the opportunity to be proactive about the future of our district.  Provided that the above criteria are met, and the best interest of the entire district is the compass used in our decision making process, then, yes, I would cast that vote.

Friday, July 19, 2013

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood!

Recently, we have heard the term "neighborhood school" quite a bit, specifically based on the results of district wide surveys which showed a 63.8% majority of those surveyed felt that even smaller elementary schools in the district should remain open.

Consider these items:
  • Growing up and attending Lemme Elementary when it was still a relatively new school (I'm aging myself here) most of the students attending were within walking distance of the school.  There were some who lived out on what was then called Rural Route 5 by Fairway Golf Course (now Windsor Ridge).  My friends who grew up on RR5 have recently reaffirmed to me that Lemme was considered by them to be their "neighborhood school" although they could not walk there and relied on bussing.

  • Shimek enrolled 199 students last year.  Of those children, 92 are eligible for bussing and  only 40 live within 0.5 mile.  Our family drives 1.3 miles to Shimek and many parents drive 5 or more miles.  Most parents at Shimek refer to it as their "neighborhood school," although relatively few can walk there.

  • Many of my friends whose kids attend Lincoln live in the Manville Heights area, but then others live north of I-80 in the region stretching all the way to the Coralville Reservoir.  Of the 246 students enrolled last year, 126 rode busses and only 65 came from the surrounding 0.5 mile radius.  I know my friends both north of I-80 and in Manville Heights refer to Lincoln as their "neighborhood school"

  • Longfellow enrolled 334 students last year from the immediate surrounding area as well as the Windsor Ridge area east of Scott Blvd, 3 miles away.  82 (24.6%) of those kids are bussed and 182 live within 0.5 mile radius. 

  • Hills Elementary is the only school in Hills.  108 were enrolled there last year.  62 rode busses and only 28 lived within a half mile. It is truly a neighborhood school because it's the only school in the community. 

I suppose the point I'm trying to make with regard to defining neighborhood schools, is that while the term neighborhood school seems to indicate a geographic proximity, in reality many students live nowhere near their perceived neighborhood school.  In our own district 7,080 elementary school children enrolled last year and 2,666 (37%) rode busses while only 3400 (just under 50%) lived within 0.5 miles of a school. 

Perhaps the term neighborhood school is, in fact, a misnomer.  Perhaps a more appropriate term to use is community school, which implies that the schools are not necessarily bound by geography, but are rather a small close-knit community within the district where families feel a connection to their teachers, administration and other families. 

Committing to our neighborhood schools as I have listed as a core belief of this campaign implies that we should work to find ways to use our existing elementary facilities as best we can in order to create communities that exist throughout our district where students and their families can feel at home.  

One caveat though, is that these communities are the people of a school, not the actual bricks and mortar of the building.  When a group of students is supported by strong parent involvement and caring teachers, those children will succeed as long as that strong community and support follows them.

Consider for example, going to summer camp. The other campers in your cabin are your community, not the cabin itself.  Your cabin mates are your closest relationships within the larger total pool of campers.  If the cabins are equitable (more on this later...) then the camp experience should be pretty comparable for all campers, regardless of what cabin they are assigned. When you sign up for summer camp, you sign up for the enriching, fun experience of attending a camp and you know that no matter what cabin you are assigned, you will have the opportunity to have a great camp experience. THis can be considered as a great analogy for our district. (Can you tell that our oldest was at YMCA Camp Wapsie last week?)

As we look ahead beyond the ongoing facilities discussions to implementation of the ICCSD Diversity Policy, obviously we will be reexamining boundaries and considering a multitude of creative options and ideas.  We aren’t the first district to do this.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.   We DO, however, have to realize that our concept of neighborhood schools may no longer be defined by walkability, but more by the close-knit community that each school represents.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Thoughts and Observations on Fencing (, not the Olympic Sport)

Here's what I've learned about fencing for our elementary schools over the past couple of weeks.....

First, a little background information.  In an effort to upgrade the security at all of our schools throughout the district, numerous in-house upgrades are being considered for all schools.  These include electronic door access, intruder locksets, intercoms, camera surveillance, window blinds, systems integration, fire alarm upgrades, visitor management system, district wide digital radio upgrade, bus-rider tracker system and, yes, chain link fencing at elementary school playgrounds. 

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the June 20th Van Allen fencing meeting due to a scheduling conflict, but Kristi Saunders has done a great job keeping me informed.  Thanks for your efforts, Kristi. I really appreciate it, since we have similar concerns about fencing.

June 25-27, I attended the Shimek, Weber and Longfellow fence presentations. 

My children attend Shimek, so I initially attended that meeting as a parent.  Here are my notes from the Tuesday, June 25 meeting:

  • One parent did a good job or reminding the room that in the interest of equity, a fence plan should be considered at all schools. Not all schools being carbon copies, though, there has to be consideration for each facility's unique geography and location. 
  • The forum is to solicit input from parents and neighbors
  • The other safety and security upgrades, while a bit overwhelming upfront, seem to make a lot of sense. Tragedies will never happen in MY school....until they do. And then people will say, "well, why didn't the district try to do x,y,or z?"  Liberty and Security need a happy medium, though as another parent pointed out.
  • Emotions ran high at times and Duane VanHemert did a great job of rolling with the punches, so to speak, and maintaining a calm demeanor.  I found out Duane was a Navy corpsman on a hospital ship off the coast of Vietnam, so he's obviously handled a much more stressful environment.  He was friendly, empathetic and engaging throughout the night.
  • As for the fence, well, between ALICE training post-Sandy Hook and the fact that a fence seems to go against what Bohumeil Shimek as a conservationist and botanist, would have likely supported, I'm still not convinced in the case of Shimek Elementary, but I AM more open to the idea now that I've seen the proposed fence line, which encompasses much of the grounds and still allows for the prairie field campus to be maintained.  Cost is obviously a concern as well.
  • Thanks to board member Sarah Swisher for attending.
  • Thought for the day: If the goal is to "define the space" at a campus surrounded by woods, isn't it already pretty well defined? 

Wednesday June 26 meeting at Weber. (I attended just to observe):

  • *Eerily similar to the Shimek discussion.  VERY different geography and location from Shimek, but strong anti-fence sentiment in the room.

  • Good sized crowd. Thanks to all who attended, especially Weber parent and public servant Officer Mike Smithey who shared his candid thoughts on security in our schools.  Your very valuable, constructive input was greatly appreciated.  Real security vs perceived security are indeed two very different things. 
  • Fencing is not a "done deal" by any means and community input is still very important at EACH school.  This is refreshing to hear. 

Thursday, June 27 at Longfellow (again, just to observe):

  • Again thanks to all Longfellow neighbors and parents who were present
  • Duane again handled the pressure well and overall, I feel that the people went home satisfied that their voices had been heard.
  • It looks as if the gathered opinions and information from all meetings will be taken back to the board for reconsideration
  • Thanks to board member Sarah Swisher for attending and adding valuable input. 

Final thoughts: 
  • At each successive meeting, it became more and more apparent that the community input was both valuable and greatly appreciated.  I'm more convinced now that perhaps a fence either will not happen at each school or perhaps the proposals will be tailored to meet each individual facility's specific needs.
  • Although Van Allen, Shimek, Longfellow and Weber are all vastly different in their age, location and geography, the parents and neighbors all share legitimate concerns about fencing.  No one believes that security couldn't be upgraded at our schools, but certainly a chain link fence may not actually increase the security.  Perhaps imagined security might be more dangerous than no security???

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds

Three Weeks ago, Alison Demory, RD, LD Food Service Coordinator for the ICCSD gave an excellent presentation to the Board about recent changes to the Food Service Program.

As a healthcare provider and a parent, I am very concerned about the childhood obesity epidemic in this country. Unfortunately, many of our kids will develop diabetes due to obesity before they graduate. We are in danger of raising an entire generation with a shorter average life expectancy than their parents.

Proper nutrition, physical exercise and parental role models (*ahem, everyone reading this*), are the key to giving our kids a healthy start to a long life.  While the fundamentals start at home, it’s nice to see healthy food choices, portion control and school gardens reinforced while they are away at school.

Alison has made some great changes in just one year with even more changes on the horizon.  Her work deserves to be recognized. Great job!

Here is a link to her presentation: